Archive for the ‘Compassion’ Category

What Peace Corps Taught Me – Fame

Written by Kate • June 27, 2012 •
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Peace CorpsI am sure this sounds like the most ridiculous idea but during my Peace Corps service, I really got a taste of fame and I didn’t much like it. Lemme esplain.

I lived in a small town in West Africa, maybe 3000 people in Sekou and all of the several villages surrounding Sekou. Essentially no one but the Proviseur, who I mentioned in my last post was the only other person I knew who had traveled,  and I had ever traveled more than 100 miles from where people were born, grew up and lived and died.  Certainly no one had been on a plane and no one but the Proviseur and I had ever left our families for any length of time.

So my arrival, like all other volunteers in the small communities we were placed in Benin, was big news and I was big news.  Children would freak out with joy at seeing me and rush me and want me to give them money, wisdom, and lots of attention.

Author with High School Kids - HIV Prevention Education in Sekou, Benin

Author with High School Kids – HIV Prevention Education in Sekou, Benin

The long and the short of it is that I was a thrilling and novel presence wherever I went. Children would watch me read. Whenever I went for a run or a bike ride, strangers would want to race me because if they could beat me, well life just got better for a moment.  Walking past an elementary school became something I avoided. Children would yell for me, surround me, want my money, and to touch me.

I soon learned what living a fish bowl constantly being watched felt like. I finally really understood what it’s like not to be able to go about doing the ordinary things that all people must do without others following you, watching your every move, judging and commenting on you in the moment, and wanting a piece of you.

Because of my own experiences, I respectfully ignore famous people that I randomly encounter. A few examples are of once boarding behind John Cusak on a plane and sitting in a secluded airport waiting area with David Lee Roth.  Not a word to either of them.

In my experience, fame isn’t what is cracked up to be. And it’s amazing to me that I was able to learn this lesson through living in a very small town in West Africa. You never know what life will serve up to you.

 

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What Peace Corps Taught Me- Connection

Written by Kate • June 21, 2012 •
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Peace CorpsIn an ongoing series about what I learned from my service in the Peace Corps, this article is on connection. My first two articles in this series are:

What Peace Corps Taught Me- A Series

What Peace Corps Taught Me- Presence

I arrived in Benin with the largest contingent of volunteers to ever arrive in one training group. Apparently, our Peace Corps Director at the time decided to minimize the disruption to Peace Corps Benin by unifying the normally two separate training groups and creating one large group to be trained at the same time.

Side note: This wasn’t a total disaster but let’s just say not every detail was understood about what effect 80 volunteers would have on training resources. For example, there weren’t quite enough rooms for everyone so some of us had to live in the teachers quarters. Not a problem at all. But in the mess hall, there was never quite enough to eat as the staff didn’t know how to make meals enough for the 80 Benin volunteers plus the [unknown to me] number of Togo volunteers with whom we were training. I began to feel a vague “Lord of the Flies” mentality descend over the group as we all started to make sure we were there at the start of the meal and to take as much as we possibly could have wanted because there was never ever going to be seconds. For this reason, I still avoid buffets to this day because, despite their obvious abundance, it invokes in me a sense of lack.

Back to the main story…We 80 Benin Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) trained in Togo together for 6 weeks and then another 6 weeks in Benin. Obviously, with 80 people living together in stressful circumstances, it wasn’t easy going. I fell in with a group of volunteers that I really liked right away but thought that many of the others and I just didn’t click. There weren’t many that I outright didn’t like but I just didn’t make that heart connection from the first. And so I, and many others, started to form the inevitable cliques where we sorted ourselves with other with whom we had a natural affinity.

Off To Post

We then all got sorted out and shipped off to our posts, where we would live for the next two years. I had wanted to be in the south of the country because I felt I wouldn’t have been ready for the tougher life au Nord (in the North) where there was no water, electricity, or other Western comforts. As it turns out, I was posted in the only 10 KM area in all of the south that did not have electricity.  And there was no running water. So I ended up in a very small village that was the heart of voodoo without any of the comforts I had been hoping for while in training. But life often knows better.

I learned to love my life where I was, as did the vast majority of the other PCVs. Learning to love your experience wasn’t universal. Some people just never adapted and left early. Once I figured out my water situation- I paid someone to bring me water from the town pump. -Let me tell you, water is very very heavy. I once tried to carry it on my head in a large bowl the way the Beninoises did it and I thought I would crush my neck downward.-  But living without electricity, without street lights, without light pollution became one of the true joys of my life. I had a shower next to house- which consisted of a cement flooring and 3 and 1/2 sides of screening that were created by lashing together 10 foot dried palm fronds. Because it was so hot there, almost everyone ended up taking two showers per day, one in the morning and one at night, to cool down and to get rid of the day’s sweat.  Taking a cool shower outside in the warm night, looking at the stars and seeing the sky’s vastness, is something no one should miss.

Circumscribed World

As you can imagine, pre-internet, information became a one-sided affair. Newsweek was provided by Peace Corps so that we would have an understanding of what was happening in the wider world and I became a BBC and VOA junkie. And I would call my family once a quarter and write to them as often as I could, as would they. But life got simpler, smaller, till it felt like my life was about me, my village, and my fellow PCVs.

As I settled in, dealt with my homesickness, and adapted to my new living situation and Benin’s culture, I started to make friend with several of the villagers in my town. One of my closest friends, Romaine, just showed up one day and wanted to see the new PCV in town. She was wholly different from anyone else I met in that she had enough courage to just come over and introduce herself. We sat around chatting one afternoon and it was very pleasant. Then she came back and I settled in for another chat but she didn’t just want to sit. So while we were talking she did my dishes, over my protests. At some point, she and her two children just moved in with me.

For her, this was a very logical move. She just knew that no one could be happy living alone, it was anethma in Beninois society. And she needed a better place to stay after having left her cheating husband and his uncaring family. She wouldn’t take the single mattress I had in my living room in case her 18 month old daughter had an accident in the night- so she and her kids laid out a mat each night and slept on the floor. So I provided for her family in terms of food and shelter and she became my housekeeper of sorts. Her presence and her children gave me even more additional insights into Benin. It ended up being such a blessing to have her and the kids in my life.

Author with Friends

Author with Friends

In addition to Romaine, I became very good friends with four additional people in my village. One, the principal of the local technical school which provided agricultural training, was the only one who had traveled more than 50 or so miles from his home. He had lived in the USSR [Benin was communist until 1990] and taken courses at a University in Moscow. So he alone understand my homesickness although his was overlaid with the pain of the overt racism he endured in Moscow. So my five good friends and I. Life settled into a routine and really was quite simple for the rest of my time in Benin.

Time and Opportunity Enough to Connect

I would also travel often to the capital, since it was just an hour away, to get money or for my work as the President of the Women’s club. While at the PC offices in Cotonou, I would socialize with the other PCVs that were there. We caught up. We shared our experiences, our regrets, our failures, and our successes. With our shared experiences of life alone in our villages, the other PCVs and I all had a sense of connectedness that ran very deep. Our personality differences melted away and we were able to share a deep bond over what we were experiencing.

I remember marveling at the connection we all were establishing and it dawned on my that our three months of training for our Peace Corps service was probably one of the most stressful and difficult periods of our life, perhaps not the most auspicious way to begin a last friendship with 80 other people. I mean layer over the culture shock with language training with dysentery with immunization shots that could make you ill for days and even the most even-tempered of a person could become an irritable person, right?

But with our two-year commitment, we were afforded the time and the opportunity enough to connect, to share our deepest selves with each other.

Connectedness

The deep bonds I created with nearly 80 other people, through our shared experiences is one of the most profound of my entire Peace Corps experience. Without other distractions – no movies- no internet- no TV- no phone- no easy transport to take us away- all we had was each other.  We upleveled our interactions with each other.  We played cards, talked, and learned to be even friends.

It is this level of connectedness that I still seek today. I’ve moved to a small, exurban community and there are so many competing demands on our time. But on of the most profound ways we can spend our time is through our interactions with others in similar circumstances. It nourishes the soul.

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What Peace Corps Taught Me About Life- A Series

Written by Kate • June 8, 2012 •
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Peace CorpsI joined the Peace Corps in 1995 after a few years in graduate school. I studied International Development which is a fancy way to say I learned about how to improve the lives of those living in developing nations. We studied economics, the environment, microcultures, etc. Every single person in my class of about 200 had been in the Peace Corps except maybe five others. And four of those other five had spent time in developing nations through other programs. So it was just me and a guy named Josh who had never been to a developing nation. At first that was fine. But then, class after class after,  I saw the sense of community, of shared experiences by all returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCV). They had this deep connection, this bond that was apparent after a few seconds, no matter where they had served.

And so I became very interested in joining and becoming a part of this larger community- and it was a great way to get overseas and pay back the mounting debt I was beginning to feel I owed to the world. I wanted to be overseas again, after having spent my senior year of undergrad in Paris, I wanted to give back to a world that had provided me with so much, and I wanted to be a part of a community.

I realized things were going to have to change. I let my perm grow out, I went camping for the first time in 15 years, and I applied to the Peace Corps. Peace Corps tried to not send me the application saying I wasn’t qualified enough. Please. So I told them to just send me the thing and we’ll see. This was pre-internet- by the way- so I couldn’t just go online.  And then I found out that this is something they do to everyone because hey, if you’re going to fold just because you someone hassled you about your application, you shouldn’t be wasting Peace Corps’ time and money on getting you overseas.

I applied. I jumped through their hoops; medical, dental, references. I got certified by my doctor that my hayfever didn’t pose a risk to me in a place where there is no doctor.  I got my wisdom teeth out- just in case they came in while in country. After 8 months of paperwork, doctor visits, and more, I was invited to go to Benin in West Africa for two years plus 3 months training.  I found out just before Christmas 1994  and decided to wait until January to tell my Mom -so I wouldn’t ruin her Christmas. I was going to leave in May.

I had never heard of Benin so I looked at the map in my office at the time and could not find Benin. Turns out the map was too old. Benin has been Dahomey until 1990.  Remember- no internet! So I found out about Benin through books and was very excited.

I had to tell my Mom and the rest of my family, give notice at work, buy supplies, and get ready to leave. What I didn’t realize about my 2 years of service is that I would get far more out of it than I could ever have given and that it was to change me fundamentally from the person I had been prior to my service.

I will be writing about the biggest lessons I got from my experience and apply them to life here in the US in a series of blog posts.

The other posts in the series:

What Peace Corps Taught Me – Presence

What Peace Corps Taught Me- Connection

What Peace Corps Taught Me – Fame

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Follow the Joy

Written by Kate • June 1, 2012 •
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O Be Joyful

Image Thanks To CameliaTWU

It seems like such a simple thing to do: “Follow the Joy”. Do what you makes you feel an abundant sense of peace, joy, well-being. But what if the joy you feel is caused by something you were taught was wrong, or impractical, or just “not done”.  What if your Joy is telling you to quit your job and back pack around Europe? What if your Joy is telling you to stop staying out late and start doing yoga at dawn each day? It’s easy to think that you’re the one who is willing to follow your Joy right up until your sense of Joy tells you to do something that feels inconvenient and scary. “Quit my job? How will I live?” “Stop staying out late? What about my friends and my community? No one I know does yoga or gets up at dawn”?

The down side to not following your Joy:

  1. Less joy. By allowing your beliefs about what is right and what is “allowable”, or by worrying about what “they” might think get in your way of following your Joy, you ignore what makes you happy and you do something else instead.
  2. Lessened ability to know what brings you joy. When you start to consistent ignore your internal guidance system about what brings you joy and you instead do the acceptable and practical thing, you become less able to hear the system and it becomes harder and harder to know what it is that feeds your soul.
  3. Numbness and despair. After years of ignoring your Joy, you end up in numb and in despair. Mid life crisis, anyone? And then you have to peel back the years and the layers of practical and fear to find that small, nearly silenced voice that is your Joy.

But why not bypass the typical approach to live and avoid your mid- life crisis and years of numbness and despair. Follow your Joy, no matter how impractical it may be.

The up side to following your Joy

  1. Increased confidence to follow your Joy. The more you’re willing to risk following your joy, the more you’ll able to do to follow it. You’ll see that although it may have appeared impractical to your mind’s eye, following your Joy actually makes a lot of sense to your life. And in a virtuous cycle, it just gets better and easier.
  2. Synchronicity. More joy. More confidence. More things clicking. You will become “lucky”. Things will go your way. You’ll start getting the right resource at the right time.
  3. Rich and happy life. As you build your confidence and momentum, life get happier and your life is full of rich content that feeds your soul.

So skip the mess. Have the courage to follow your Joy now.  Show others the way.

 

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Give up complaining

Written by Kate • May 23, 2012 •
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Stop Complaining

Image Thanks to ATurkus

I know most people complain, it feels so good to do it sometimes. And there are a rare few who take it to such a level that it becomes an art form such that it is akin to entertainment to hear the way they complain.  It can be fun to witness this level of complaining.

And sometimes it’s painful to see how much complaining takes up a person’s life. It’s like they’ve resigned themselves to permanent victim status. I’ve heard from others so often variations on the following statements: “This other person did this so I had to respond in this way [meaning normally I wouldn’t be stoop this low but the other person’s behavior forced me to]. ” Or “‘Can you believe the other person acted in this way [meaning I know how others should act at all times and it’s the way I see the world]. Or “This situation happened to me and it’s not fair [meaning I have so little power over my life I react to these situations rather than accept what is].

Don’t get me wrong. It’s easy to see in others where and how they complain too much. It’s far more difficult to catch yourself in your chronic litany of “they done me wrong”. I have been guilty of complaining as much the next person. But several years ago, I gave up complaining for long periods of time [with varying success]. I’m happy to report that my desire to complain lessens the more I practice the art of giving up complaining. Complaining focuses your attention on people and matters external to yourself and keeps you focused on what is happening to you, rather than what you can do in your life and in the world.  It’s an incredibly corrosive attitude that can keep you stuck in victimhood and powerlessness.

The following are some reasons why you should give up complaining and some common situations you may find yourself in once you’ve committed to giving it up.

First though, as in all things, don’t expect complete transformation one day to the next. We are biologically wired to continue our habits and it’ll be some time before you’re able to change any habit. So consider a 30 day trial and notice how often you complain during those 30 days. And then, at the end of the 30 days, start adding in one hour per day that you’re complaint free [in addition to all the time you sleep – which can’t count! 😉 ].

Complaining Gives Your Power Away

When you complain about something someone else does or something that has happened to you, you’ve given your power away over how much you can influence people and events in your life and  how you want to act. If you can imagine the difference between being someone who takes the temperature of a room and someone who sets the temperature of room, you can start to see who you’ve given your power away.  If you’re the thermometer, then you’re the person reacting to whether or not the room is hot or cold. When you’re the thermostat, you set the temperature of the room.  So if someone is doing something else you don’t like, you don’t let them shift your sense of self or sense of peace.

By being the person who remains unaffected by bad or boorish behavior on others’ parts, you can rest in your own centeredness. For example, imagine the Dalai Lama and how he reacts. He has been accused of terrible things by the Chinese government and he continues to pray for that country. His sense of self, his sense of right is not being altered because of external situations or circumstances.

Complaining Focuses Your Attention On One Moment In Time

By complaining over situations or another person’s behavior, you are focusing all your attention on one moment in time- without allowing for the broader sense of time and space. So someone was unbelievably rude to you or a circumstance is entirely unfair- and then you complain about it and you focus on how bad the situation was. Well, that situation happened and now it’s over. Yet you’re continuing to give all your attention to a situation that, if you allowed it to drop, would be over and forgotten. No need to keep dredging up one moment and time and keep it with you as you continue to feed it your attention and focus.

Instead, you can acknowledge it happened and that it kinda sucked or that you didn’t like what happened to you or label it unpleasant. And then drop the situation, your anger, your sense of what “should have happened”, and move on. It’s over and now you can focus again on the situations and people that you choose to spend your attention on.

Complaining About Someone Else Means You’re Deciding How Everyone Else Should Act

It certainly is easy to hold everyone else to the highest bar and expect them to act in the way you think is best. This is how other’s should be be. This is clearly how the situation should be. They shouldn’t act this way.  But what you’re really saying is that you expect people to act in the way you think they should act, in all situations, in a way that is beneficial to you.  Which is hoohaw, as you well know. But it’s hard to drop the satisfaction you get when you “know” you’re right and the other person is wrong. Here’s the truth: if your advice is so great, you follow it first. You be the person who acts correctly in all situations, who doesn’t let tiredness, or fear, or insecurities swamp them from time to time. You be the person who puts acts in the “right” way every time.

Instead, be the change you want to see in the world. Be the one who allows others to act in the way they need to act, even it you disagree with the manner in which they do it.  Focus instead on how you’re interacting with others, the joy and the sorrow you bring to the world, and how you make the world a better [or worse] place. You can only change yourself.

Common Situations You Find Yourself In Once You’ve Given Up Complaining

Someone else complains all the time

Once you’ve decided to give up complaining, you’ll unfortunately notice in even more in others around you. This is to be expected, normal, and frustrating! But just because you’re become aware of how complaining doesn’t help and in fact hurts you doesn’t mean others realize this. For them, complaining still feels right or good. So meet others where they are on their path. And if their complaining gets extensive, don’t be afraid to change the subject or to remove yourself from the situation.  After a while, sometimes longer than we’d like, others will notice that complaining around you doesn’t work anymore and you’ll find others doing it less and less.

You just want to complain about this one little thing- it’s so justified.

Sometimes you’ve been so wronged or you’re so tired that you feel like this one time that complaining is totally justified and appropriate.  The fact is that you may have been utterly wronged but complaining about it doesn’t change that fact. Complaining about it gives your power away. Instead you can think, discuss, mull over the situation and respond to it. Discussing a situation and how you’ll respond to it is not complaining.

You’ll know you’ve slipped back into complaining when you move from discussing a situation about how you’re going to react to focusing on the actions of the other person or the situation and getting into a sense of I’m right and the other person/situation is wrong.

Try It!

Giving up complaining is a worthwhile effort that takes patience and mindfulness. The rewards are a stronger sense of self and an increased ability to respond to any situation you find yourself in.  Try for it for 30 days and see!

 

 

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